Letter to the Editor: What Can a Community Do to Combat those who Seek to Criminalize Poverty?

Dear Editorial Board,

What can a community do to combat those who seek to criminalize poverty?

Once again the Travis County GOP is seeking to repeal the City of Austin’s camping ordinance (Section 9-4-11 of the Austin City Code). The Save Austin Now petition seeks to criminalize homelessness. Although it claims to be bipartisan, it is a Republican effort and is even registered at the Travis County GOP headquarters.

They have sent canvassers across the city. These petitioners spread disinformation about the very petition they are asking citizens to sign. Claiming that new ordinances will “help the homeless” and asking, “Wouldn’t you rather have these people in designated camps rather than on the streets?” Although it is true that Austin is experiencing a major problem with displaced peoples living on our streets, instead of addressing the problem they seek to violently expel the lowest class. The fascist dog whistles ring clear to me. The ban on freedom of movement, increase in sweeps, and the push to put displaced peoples into camps echo the violent rhetoric of criminalizing the poor. This is obvious in their petition (if they actually allow you to read it and not just ask you to sign after feeding you a prepared lie). They seek to repeal and replace Section 9-4-14 of the Austin City Code with a ban on SITTING OR LYING DOWN ON PUBLIC SIDEWALKS OR SLEEPING OUTDOORS IN THE DOWNTOWN AUSTIN COMMUNITY.

Several unhoused Austinites have described to me the horrors and jail-like conditions of these “camps.” 24-hour police surveillance and big tech tracking projects. Camp R.A.T.T was known for allowing pedophiles to live in the same community as children.

Austin is well known for its community activism and mutual aid. The actions networks such as Stop the Sweeps and Camp Support have undertaken in the past year are impressive. With this blossoming of community resistance we have the power to keep each other safe. This includes displaced Austinites.

It is my opinion that we should resist the Save Austin Now initiative and those who continue to attempt to criminalize poverty in our community. I now ask Tribune of the People to stand in solidarity against fascist rhetoric which is being spread in Austin. Stand up for victims of oppression.

– A citizen of Austin.


Greetings,

We have published an opinion on this topic before, “Austin’s Homeless Encampments,” and two different Worker’s Voice articles found here and here. Tribune does not find “criminalization” the best framework to understand the proposed bans in Austin or cities like it. Homeless people are already criminalized under capitalism officially and unofficially, and many are forced through economic coercion into criminal acts for subsistence. The real crime here is not what the most unfortunate do in desperation and for survival, but the fact that this demographic is produced in the first place. That being said, revolutionaries must work in these conditions and not simply entertain delusions that predatory actions against working people are acceptable.

Bans on camping do nothing to protect the people generally, and least of all those who are forced to camp. Open-air prisons provided by the state at the expense of society are likewise no solution. Organizing among homeless populations provides its own challenges and problems. The main ones have to do with the instability of the population, their relationship to production, and in most cases their exclusion from production, which drastically limits their leverage as a group. Of course, drug addiction and crime add to the difficulties, since these conditions pose extreme limitations on organizing for one’s rights. This problem will not be solved under capitalism, in which housing is a commodity whose accessibility is dictated by a market, and not a right guaranteed to each and every citizen. Socialism solves the problem in two ways: 1) State ownership over housing along with the means of production; 2) Complete employment for all of society.

Of course Tribune, along with all progressive people, must raise their voices denouncing the efforts of the state to usher the most poor off to cages for no other reason than their being poor. Socialists must also denounce the fact that these camps come to exist in the first place, and cite the fact that they do pose a public health risk, and that this is not due to any one feature of the homeless, but due to capitalism’s inability and unwillingness to provide for the social well-being of its people.

When it comes to the revolutionary approach to the matter, the issue for Tribune and revolutionaries is to attack the matter at the root: the unjust economic and social system that is capitalism, rooted in private ownership. Many charitable groups exhaust themselves trying to address homelessness, and orient specifically to this group because of how clear the need is. Sadly, in doing so they often lose track of the sickness for its symptom, and they do not end up meaningfully challenging capitalism itself. In the worst-case scenario they end up serving capitalism by smoothing over some of its rough parts, which is completely acceptable to the capitalist class. Therefore, the entire concept of social service cannot ever for a moment be separated from the question of class power and the socialist revolution.

While the bourgeois approaches vary from charity to imprisonment, the homeless population only increases, and among them are an ever-increasing number of workers. These are people who have the potential to become a leading force in whatever struggle they take part in. As workers (even those who can only work part-time) increase in the homeless population, organizational efforts must increase to unify campers in their immediate interests, to develop their own administrative bodies and fight the city’s efforts to cage them in. This fight is part of the broader struggle for working-class housing in the city, and these struggles must be linked. In the long term the majority of people must be united in the furnace of class struggle for the conquest of proletarian power.

We suggest studying “The Problem of Masses, the Struggle for Daily Demands, and People’s War” for a better theoretical understanding of a revolutionary approach to the question. We must also highlight a general economic law of capitalism—that is, the growing accumulation of wealth in the hands of the capitalist class combined with the accumulation of poverty for other classes. While capitalism can do a lot to sustain itself, it ultimately dooms itself by creating the proletariat, who alone can lead in its final overthrow.

Finally, we highlight a very important fact: imperialism is the highest and final stage of capitalism; and therefore, by necessity, the imperialist system of liberal bourgeois democracy constantly undergoes a process of deepening reaction. All laws become more restricting of the people, and the people’s democratic rights are further restricted. The entire system becomes more reactionary. This causes even sharper contradictions and increases the certainty of revolution. We witness this process daily. It is evident in the police, state, and federal response to the uprisings in defense of Black lives, growing civilian reactionary movements, increased incarceration, massive cuts to social services, and the reactionary application of the social services that remain functional. Hence, no one can rely on the system for help, and the call must be raised ever higher for the system’s complete and total overthrow.

– Tribune of the People Editorial Board

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